Ameena Matthews in The Interrupters
Ameena Matthews in The Interrupters

The other day I sat down on a living room sofa and watched The Interrupters. To my right was a TV documentarian who handled the remote and frequently stopped the movie to discuss it. To my left was his friend, a retired gang crimes officer. When The Interrupters was done the documentarian said how well it was made. Watching through very different eyes, the cop was skeptical.

“I like Tio Hardiman and I’m not saying what they’re doing isn’t a good thing,” said the cop. “But they play themselves up real big like they’re a main factor in reducing crime, and I just don’t believe it.”

Hardiman, one of the documentary’s protagonists, is Illinois director of CeaseFire, an organization whose approach to urban street violence begins with thinking of it as a communicable disease. In 2004 Hardiman tried something new; he recruited ex-cons with street cred and sent them out into Chicago to try to squelch violence before it spiraled out of control. They did this by appealing to the common sense and better natures of vengeful hotheads. There’s research that indicates CeaseFire’s approach is helpful, but the CeaseFire website is categorical, stating, “As testament to the success of this program overall, homicides declined in Chicago by 25 percent, to a total of 448 homicides, a rate of 15.5 homicides per 100,000 residents that same year [2004]. This was the fewest number of homicides in the city since 1965.”

This sort of assertiveness irritates police, who quarantine the infected by locking them up. When homicides drop dramatically in Chicago, the cops wouldn’t mind a little of the credit.

But the gang crimes cop gives credit where he thinks it’s due. The Chicago PD is so computer oriented, he says, that “talking to people on the street is a lost art. The interrupters do it the old way.”

And watching interrupter Ameena Matthews get in the face of some street toughs, the cop allows, “The way she talks to them, you got to talk to them that way. You got to talk to them at their level. She talked real good.” But he goes on, “Maybe some of this was put on for the camera.” Serious gang members don’t want to be on camera, he says. “The guys out there selling drugs and doing dirt, they’re more scared of cameras than guns.”

Screened last year at several Chicago venues and aired last month on Frontline, The Interrupters was made by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, who spent a year on the streets with three interrupters. It owes a large portion of its power to its close look at its subject matter, a side of Chicago that audiences from the city’s Starbucks belt know little about. “The average person has no concept of what goes on in the streets,” said the gang crimes cop.

But he’s bothered by something he thinks is false about the picture. “Most of the violence interrupters came from the hierarchy in some of these gangs,” says Hardiman early on. A little later, singing the praises of interrupter Cobe Williams, who joined CeaseFire after 12 years in prison for drug trafficking and attempted murder, Hardiman says, “Cobe has this tremendous credibility with the gang members out there.”

But we don’t see these gang members. “What I saw in the movie didn’t really mean nothing,” said the gang crimes cop. “Stopping two brothers from beating the shit out of each other. Stopping this girl from getting stupid.”

In the film, a mother tells Williams she got so weary dealing with her sons’ trying to kill each other because they belonged to rival “cliques” that she finally moved and now won’t tell them where she lives. Williams finds the sons, sets them down with their mom, and seems to drill a little sense into their heads.

In another scene, Matthews rushes out of the CeaseFire headquarters in Englewood because a kid on the street just got his teeth knocked out, and now here comes his sister waving a butcher knife and itching to carve up whoever did it. Matthews commands astonishing respect. Her dad is Jeff Fort, a south-side gang leader who back in the 70s could be mentioned in the same breath as Al Capone. Matthews lived the life, found her way, and now speaks with unyielding spiritual gravity. She cools everyone down.

Throughout the film we see Matthews preoccupied with Caprysha, who’s 18 and has been in and out of foster homes and detention centers all her life. Matthews sees her old wayward self in Caprysha and refuses to give up on her. But though it might be said that to save Caprysha is to save a multitude, it might also be said that saving Caprysha will in no way lessen the grip of violence on city streets. And at the end of the movie Caprysha is not yet saved.

Later, I had a conversation with Kotlowitz about The Interrupters. I chose Kotlowitz, rather than James, because I know him, he’s a print guy like me, and I felt more comfortable talking to him in terms of what we know and how we know it. The project began when James read Kotlowitz’s cover story on CeaseFire in the New York Times Magazine in 2008. That article contained lots of information; but words on paper don’t snatch you away from your kitchen table and drop you in Englewood or Little Village the way film can.

“The police are actually the ones who are more afraid of cameras,” said Kotlowitz, and told me a story: James and his cameraman were sharing a car with two black interrupters, and when they stopped to get gas a suspicious policeman approached them. We’re making a documentary, said James; let’s film this. As he was getting his gear out of the truck the policeman took off. “Wow, that camera’s more powerful than a gun,” said one of the interrupters.

Kotlowitz also acknowledged that the gang crime cop’s skepticism about cameras is fair. “This is the question we always ask—what effect do we have on people and on moments? But it’s difficult for people to act different. They are who they are.” There’s a scene of Cobe Williams trying to talk down “Flamo,” a hothead whose mom and brother were just cuffed when cops swept their home looking for guns. Flamo has a gun and he’s heading out to do something with it. “What you’re doin’ and everything, that’s cool,” he says to Williams. “[But] where was y’all when these mothers came kickin’?”

Williams asks Flamo how many kids he’s got. “I’m claimin’ four,” Flamo says.

“When you’re gone who’s gonna take in your kids?” Williams wonders.

“That’s the thing,” snaps Flamo. “God take care of us now. He’s gonna take care of ’em. Just like when I do what I’m gonna do He gonna take care of me too.”

Kotlowitz tells me that when Williams pulled up with a camera crew Flamo exclaimed, “Who the fuck are you guys?” But immediately, said Kotlowitz, “Flamo was right back in the moment.” It’s a harrowing moment that ends with Flamo deciding to put away his gun when Williams does nothing more than promise not to disappear on him. That’s when you might remember that Flamo had called Williams in the first place.

Despite what Hardiman has to say early in the movie about gangs, if you’re waiting for the scene in which CeaseFire sits at a table with today’s young warlords and brokers peace, you’re at the wrong movie. The difference between the black ghetto and Latino barrios like Little Village, the gang crimes cop tells me, is that the Latinos “are much more macho and they’re doing much more of what I call gangbanging. They’re much more territorial. When I started, that’s the way it was with the black gangs.” But the black gangs grew up and became entrepreneurial (do you remember “Stringer” Bell trying to bring MBA principles to the streets of Baltimore in The Wire?), and, as the cop says, “gangbanging is bad for business. Black gangs are trying to make money. The Spanish gangs—they’ll just go.”

These differences influenced the movie. Interrupter Eddie Bocanegra is now in graduate school, but earlier in his life he spent 13 years in prison for murder. Bocanegra does most of his work for CeaseFire in Little Village, but word came down from gang leaders that cameras weren’t welcome there. “So we had to film Eddie a lot in Cicero, where he also does some work,” said Kotlowitz.

And in the black neighborhoods we don’t see the drug trade. We see an atomized society, scene after scene that validates the notion of violence as a contagious disease. The ultimate evidence of this is the willingness of so many people to shut up and listen when an interrupter gets in their face. Whatever his street cred, they would never put up with anyone so intrusive if they didn’t already think they were sick. They’re like belligerent drunks who accept AA in their lives because they know they’ve hit bottom.

Kotlowitz understands the movie he made. “If there was one thing for me that was completely new, it’s that so much of the violence isn’t about gangbanging,” he said. “It’s about these personal fights. You see in the movie how they refer to each other as ‘cliques’ now, not gangs? I think for some of the interrupters there’s a romanticization of the past, when the gangs were more hierarchical and had more control over their members. These guys [interrupters] get out of prison and realize the gang structure in the black community isn’t there like it used to be. You can’t go to the head of the gang and say, ‘Keep your guys in line.'”

Kotlowitz told me he and James didn’t make a movie that was about CeaseFire in the way his New York Times article was about CeaseFire. They made a movie about the world of the interrupters as he and James witnessed it over a year’s time, and if the movie’s ultimately hopeful that’s because “we came away really inspired and with a sense of promise. There is this kind of resignation when you talk about the violence, and this film said, ‘Wait a second! Maybe there is some light here!’

“But the film is very experiential. That’s the power of film. You’ve got to have a good story, good characters, and good visuals. The camera doesn’t like everybody.”

I told Kotlowitz the gang crimes cop wasn’t disputing the nice moments as much as wondering what they add up to. “I think the cop’s asking kind of a different question,” Kotlowitz replied. “Not so much ‘What does it amount to?’ but ‘Is there enough of it to make a difference?'”

The movie doesn’t answer that question. The movie doesn’t ask it. That’s for print to tackle, and no one will miss the scene in The Interrupters that isn’t there, the one where talking heads with academic credentials cite studies and debate statistics. All a movie needs to be effective is a protagonist in search of redemption who goes where others dare not dare go and does what’s right. One such hero is all it takes. And The Interrupters has three of them.

CorrectionThis story has been amended to clarify which interrupter interacted with Flamo. It was Cobe Williams.